February 11, 2016

“Solve is a loaded word”

The last post, “We grew the blended program by solving one problem at a time,” explored the ways in which two successful blended programs in Oregon had grown. As the title suggested, those programs, Bend La Pine and Crater Lake, focused on challenges faced by students or schools, addressed those challenges, and moved on to the next.

I had spoken with Tres Tyvand of Bend La Pine to make sure the post captured ideas in her presentation accurately, but reading the post once it went live got her thinking more about what she presented last week in Portland. The thoughts she sent in her email are worth adding as a coda to the earlier post:

“Solve” is a loaded word. It implies a single point in time and finality; it suggests an expert coming in, perhaps with a silver bullet. But most complex issues, in education and other sectors, are constantly evolving and solutions are therefore moving targets. And there aren’t any experts who can just solve the complex issues. When I read the post, I wondered would my colleagues that I worked with on the projects referenced think we “solved” anything? I doubted that they would frame it that way.

I got to thinking, what would they say? How would they frame our work together, applying blended learning to district issues? A few alternatives to “solved” came to mind: we met a need; we helped find a creative alternative; we had a willingness to listen and explore viable options; we took seriously the issues that confronted students, teachers, and administrators. Those phrases resonate and feel more accurate than saying we “solved” anything.

Perhaps more important than the way the words feel, they also suggest some crucial personal philosophies that we apply. We never implied that a blended or online solution was the best solution, or that it would be the only long-term solution. Instead, we suggested that if it would work, for however long it would work, our team would be there to assist with implementation and support. Many times I think the teacher, or building, or administrator that we collaborated with didn’t have any other viable options at the time, or they didn’t have a team to go to, so the willingness of the Bend-La Pine blended and online team to roll up our sleeves and quickly sketch out cost-neutral, student- and teacher-friendly options was the reason we ultimately ended up involved. That willingness, in these heavily human endeavors, seems to always be what brings people back. I think we don’t so much “solve” as tinker. We are tinkerers, in a very Wabi Sabi way, and pull from everything available in the schools and district, especially the people, and like alchemy, all of the pieces involved are spun into gold.”

The email from Tres is a good reminder that digital programs that are used in existing districts have to be built with the people there, not applied to the people who are at the school or district. This doesn’t just apply to digital learning, of course. The book The Prize details how the reform effort in Newark Public Schools failed, in large part, because Newark residents and district employees felt like reform was done to them, not with them.

Still, I wouldn’t take issue with Tres, Bryan, or other successful leaders saying that their programs had solved problems. Perhaps, though, it’s more politically palatable in some situations if it’s outside observers calling out solutions and success, while those in the trenches continue to quietly solve problems find creative alternatives.

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